The Trauma Survivors Guide to Yoga: Coming Back to the Present
Most survivors of trauma are in some way disconnected from the present moment. In an effort to cope with the massive pain and terror they’ve experienced, they shut down.
Chronic or overwhelming distress often forces those who experience it to close off to sensations in their own bodies. They frequently don’t know (or cannot describe) what they feel, or they feel nothing at all.
This dissociation works as a survival mechanism by placing vigilance in the outer world—the source of the threat—rather than being attuned to the soft inner voice of their own heart.
This is not denial. Or avoidance.
This is a physiologic response to the threat of annihilation.
The Brain’s Role In Moving On
As yoga teacher and Wounded Warrior veteran Dan Nevins says, “The warrior spirit’s not all about fighting… The warrior spirit is about pushing through and moving on.” In the case of someone with a difficult inner relationship, fighting often looks like resistance to the present moment and feels like a total inability to move forward.
This, too, is part of our physiology’s response to threat.
The part of the brain responsible for gathering and registering information from the sensory organs is called the thalamus. Once collected, the thalamus decides whether the information is relevant or unimportant (i.e.something that can be ignored or a threat that requires action).
During distress (and also while recalling a distressing event from the past), this filtering aspect of the brain goes off line. Rather than a story from a time past, this makes the experience seem like an open, ongoing occurrence in the mind of the survivor —one with no beginning, middle or end.
This off-line filter is also the source of why a past trauma is remembered not as a finite moment in time, but as a flood of sensory images: flashbacks, smells, sounds, etc. Trauma survivors are frequently too wide open, and are constantly bombarded with sensory overload. For their own survival, traumatized individuals shut down or feel the need to numb themselves.
Feeling shut down on any level creates a lack of inner presence and a disconnect from being able to live fully in the present moment. Coupled with the mind’s replaying of the trauma, this makes moving on seem almost impossible. So how can we move forward when we feel, on a very real, physiological level, as though the trauma is still occurring?
Presence in the Present
True healing requires us to live in the present moment and restore the delicate relationship with ourselves. By bringing attention within, we establish our inner awareness and learn how we feel and what we need in order to thrive in real time.
This is what I call presence.
Being grounded in the present gives us the chance to discern what’s actually happening around us and within us in the moment. Rather than being caught up in the replay of the old experience, we begin to have just enough space to watch it from the stance of an observer. In the here and now, we can start to discern actual threat from remembered threat and begin to trust ourselves and our environment.
This, too, is presence.
Bringing back a sense of presence and living in the present moment are the first steps in reclaiming power and healing from something tragic.
Yoga’s promise is to reintegrate our inner relationship. By feeling sensations in the body, by calming and deepening the breath, we can become grounded in the here and now, and restore harmony and mobility to a troubled mind-body relationship.
Yoga As Re-Orientation to the Present
The field of neuroscience has opened the doorway to understanding the nervous system and its reactions to trauma. (Read more about the nervous system in the previous article on this topic). Research shows that the part of the brain associated with speech, and the ability to translate thoughts and feelings into words (Broca’s area) goes dormant under extreme duress.
While much of talk therapy is built on the ability to describe feelings and experiences, trauma survivors may literally be unable to find the words to express what they feel.
Through yoga, though, we can begin to reorient back into our bodies and into current time. Yoga asana gives us the chance to feel what’s happening in our bodies in the present moment, and also helps us describe and give words to our experiences.
Grounded in the Present
Anytime anxiety arises or you feel unplugged, disconnected, shut down or trapped in a past memory, practice becoming grounded in the present. Literally, feel the ground (or whatever surface is) beneath you and release down into it. Then notice what is in the field of space around you. This, incidentally, is the first principle of alignment in any yoga posture.
- Find a safe place and come into Child’s pose (you can do this as pictured above, or lie on your back and hug your knees to your chest).
- Separate your knees wide enough to allow your belly to relax down, but not so wide that your torso feels unsupported.
- Relax your head and face, perhaps resting your forehead on the ground, and either soften or close your eyes.
- Turn your awareness to the places where your body is making contact with the floor underneath or behind you.
- Observe the pressure there; it may help to move around a bit to do so.
- Do what you can to release your weight down into your foundation.
- Now that you feel your body in the present moment, sit up and softly open your eyes.
- Allow your eyes to move in a natural way, simply noting and taking in the sights of whatever you see around you.
- Expand your awareness to also include what you might hear.
- Acknowledge that you are sensing and registering your current environment, grounded in the present reality.
One of the first areas to freeze up under stress is the diaphragm, or breathing, muscle. This umbrella-shaped muscle sits across the torso, at the bottom rim of the ribcage, roughly parallel to the floor. On inhale it flattens down towards the pelvis, pushing gently on the organs of the belly and broadening the ribs. Upon exhale, the diaphragm domes up under the base of the heart and lungs.
For people who are in the grip of trauma, whether past or present, breathing is often shallow and rapid, and the diaphragm muscle hardly moves at all. This breath practice isn’t one of yoga’s proper pranayama techniques, but rather a way to simply unfreeze stuck stress and restore the body to it’s natural breath.
Noticing Your Breath:
- Take a seat on the floor or in a chair, or if it feels safe, lie down on your back.
- Place your hands on the front of your belly as a way to draw your attention into your own body and the sensations occurring there.
- For the next few minutes, continue to bring your awareness to your breathing and observe any physical sensation related to it. (Maybe you feel air flowing in and out of your nose or mouth, movement in your belly or chest, or you hear the sound of your breath passing through you)
Deepening Your Breath:
- On your next inhalation push your belly up and out into your hands, as if trying to push them off your stomach.
- Allow the exhale to occur in whatever way it does.
- Repeat this 3 times, then move your hands to your ribcage, at the sides of your body.
- On this inhale focus on pressing your ribs out into your hands, imagining them going as wide as possible to the right and left.
- Again, let the exhale be natural, whatever that is now.
- Repeat this 3 times, too.
- Lastly, and perhaps most challenging, try to put those inhale actions together, so that each in-breath is both a front-back, and right-left expansion of the diaphragm and ribcage.
- Practice this combined action 3 times.
- Now, let go of all effort and allow your breath to return to normal, whatever that is now.
- Rest in your seat, or on the ground, for a few minutes, observing any sensations or changes that may have arisen as a result of breathing consciously in the present.
- Thank yourself and your body for its participation in this practice before you move on to the rest of your day.
Further reading: The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. (in particular, chapter 6)